Senate leaders agreed to begin confirmation hearings for federal Judge John G. Roberts Jr. on Monday, giving Congress this week to mourn the death of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.
"The schedule allows us both to pause to pay appropriate respect to Chief Justice Rehnquist and to complete floor action on the nomination of Judge Roberts as chief justice by October 3, the start of the Supreme Court's new term," Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, said yesterday.
The schedule allows for a Judiciary Committee vote on Judge Roberts' nomination by Sept. 22, followed by at least a week of debate on the floor of the Senate, according to committee Chairman Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican.
"You can never know for sure about a completion date because we conclude when the last senator stops talking, and that's always hard to predict," said Mr. Specter, who is becoming known for keeping loquacious senators under control during his committee's proceedings.
Republicans had been under pressure to postpone the Roberts hearings, first for Hurricane Katrina and then for the death of Justice Rehnquist.
Even the mayor of New Orleans, C. Ray Nagin, took time out of his frantic efforts to salvage his city to call Mr. Specter over the weekend and ask that the Roberts hearings be delayed.
"Events overtook us with the passing of Chief Justice Rehnquist and concern for the sentiments for the Rehnquist family," Mr. Specter said. "And then events overtook us again with the naming by the president of Judge Roberts to be chief justice, if confirmed."
Despite the postponement, Mr. Specter and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and ranking minority member on the committee, agreed that the hearings should commence without too much partisan delay. At times during a joint briefing yesterday, the two men were cordial -- even jovial -- with one another
"Senator Leahy and I have talked at great, great length about how we're proceeding and it is significantly on the basis of good faith that I am optimistic," Mr. Specter said.
Mr. Leahy said he would work with Mr. Specter, "as I have all the way through this, to keep things in line to make sure there's not procedural delays." He added that "substantive questions will be asked."
Some Democrats have said that since Judge Roberts' nomination has been elevated to chief justice, more documents should be handed over, including the solicitor general reports that the White House says are protected under attorney-client privilege.
Mr. Specter dismissed the idea, saying the more than 70,000 pages of documents provided thus far have shed plenty of light on the nominee's record.
"Judge Roberts has a very, very extensive paper trail," Mr. Specter said. "He has commented, I think, on all the issues which are of concern."